exit interview

Sterlin Harjo Is Not Afraid to Sacrifice a Good Idea

The Reservation Dogs showrunner leads by instinct.

“I wanted to go other places than season one allowed us to go,” says Reservation Dogs showrunner Sterlin Harjo, on set above with Elva Guerra (left) and Devery Jacobs. Photo: Shane Brown/FX/Copyright 2022, FX Networks. All rights reserved.
“I wanted to go other places than season one allowed us to go,” says Reservation Dogs showrunner Sterlin Harjo, on set above with Elva Guerra (left) and Devery Jacobs. Photo: Shane Brown/FX/Copyright 2022, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

Season two of Reservation Dogs pulls off one of the biggest challenges in television: Showrunner Sterlin Harjo figured out how to follow an acclaimed, sharply conceived first season with something even more assured, experimental, and exciting. The FX on Hulu series is rooted in the friendship between four Native kids (Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Lane Factor as Cheese, and Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack), and season two begins with a classic TV-comedy setup: They’ve had a falling out. Elora is escaping to California with her former nemesis Jackie (Elva Guerra), and the other three feel betrayed and uncertain about the future.

Much of the second season is built on the question of whether the four will come together again, but Harjo was adamant it not follow such an obvious arc. That would be the “bad version of the show,” he said, a version less interested in playing with audience expectations and willing to accept easy first ideas rather than pushing for something deeper. The quartet’s season-finale trip to California could’ve easily felt like a grand, longed-for culmination, but instead Reservation Dogs springs it on the audience in the final moments of the previous episode. It feels surprising but also inevitable after a season committed to giving each character their own narrative space. Harjo is the kind of showrunner who demands that every episode hold its own, even if that means throwing out stories everyone is excited about. “I came in and said, ‘Okay, I had an edible last night and got to really thinking about this, and this is not the show,’” Harjo said. Everyone in the writers’ room “was like, ‘Ughhhh.’ But they knew it was right. As painful as it is, we have to try to hold the show together.’”

Did you go into season two with any fears or guidelines about what you wanted it to be? 
I didn’t want it to feel the exact same as season one, but I wanted to go other places than season one allowed us to go. The guiding principles are just telling a story like we tell it. It’s unabashedly my sensibility. People sometimes ask how we keep the humor balanced with the sadness, and I don’t know! I just do that. It’s the way stories were told in my life. It’s not a trick. I can’t put my finger on it. I have worked at it: I’ve done films that have moments that do that or fail at doing it. I was surprised when I started watching the cuts come in — you’re scared! As soon as you finish the script, you’re like, I hope they work. This season, I started seeing cuts come in and thought, Whoa, this is going to be good. 

Part of it is that I don’t have any bad habits from working in TV a lot or for studios. I didn’t even know what showrunners did before I became one. It’s just like being an independent filmmaker — your hand is in every part of the process. I had no idea how to run a room; I’d never been in a room before. I just did it the way I figured I should do it.

We started the room for season three today. It’s like playing catch: throwing things out and seeing who grabs hold or what jars something in someone’s brain. But I don’t want to force anything. If it’s a day where we’re just, like, eating shit, I will call it. Last season, there was a run of four days where it felt like we didn’t know what we were going to do. Like, This is not working. It was depressing. One day, we came back in and just unlocked it.

Do you remember what you were stumbling on? 
One thing was an episode about Big (Zahn McClarnon). Blackhorse Lowe co-wrote and directed that episode, and I remember him half-asleep during the Zoom. Somehow it clicked for me: What if Big gets dosed and goes on a crazy acid trip? I remember Blackhorse waking up and all of a sudden engaging. I thought, All right, we’re onto something.

Episode 209 was originally a yard sale, and then that became a wild-onion dinner. Two weeks before shooting it, I knew something was wrong. Holding these things to the fire, making sure they feel real and truthful, making sure they feel like the show. Something wasn’t feeling right, and we came up with the idea of Willie Jack visiting her aunt, Daniel’s mother, in jail. We broke it, and then Migizi Pensoneau wrote it. It was down to the wire. Literally today, in the writers’ room, they were making fun of me for this. I’ll come into the room, and — let’s say it was the wild-onion-dinner version of the episode — I’ll say, “What is this episode if it’s not a wild-onion dinner?” And the room will go, “Ughhhhh.” But it’s really figuring out what we’re trying to say. A lot of times, another way of saying it is better.

I just don’t want it to feel thin or fake. Some season-two openers feel like the first idea in a writers’ room. There are a lot of first ideas out there, and they feel thin! You have to break through that for it to be good. That’s all I do. That’s the only meter I go through. Does it feel like the show? We put pressure on these episodes until we’re sure they hold water.

Are there second seasons of shows you admire? 
Atlanta season two was great! Goes somewhere else than season one, is really exciting. I have more that I don’t like that I don’t want to say.

Second seasons are so hard! They have to be all the things you love about a show without coasting on ideas that already worked. 
The bad version of our show is if the whole season were about what would happen at the end. If it’d just been an arc where they’re pushing toward something, or if it’d set up the problem early on and then waited to see how it would play out, I don’t think that would’ve been good.

The fact that they don’t figure out they’re going to L.A. until the end of 209, and the audience doesn’t know, is awesome. In the bad version, they would’ve decided in episode two that they were trying to get there. Instead, they have to figure all these other pieces out, and then bam! It happens. Playing with expectations helps us.

Within this season, it feels like “Roofing,” “Mabel,” “Stay Gold, Cheesy Boy,” and “Offerings” work as a set. Each of them is about one of the Reservation Dogs on their own. They’re all very intense, often darker episodes about these kids grieving or feeling lost. Were you thinking about how to pace those within the season? 
I really wish I had a plan. It’s very instinctual. Like, We really need an aunties episode! Then, We need to bring it back to the group, so how will we do that? Bear didn’t have an episode last season, so we wanted to give him one early on in season two. People love Willie Jack, so we decided to hold her off — we’ll unleash her on the audience at the end. And it felt like Elora’s grandmother’s passing shook everyone up early in the season; you assume everything’s going a certain way and then a death changes everything.

The entire guest cast is incredible, but I could not take my eyes off of Jana Schmieding this season. Was she involved in developing that character? 
She auditioned for Bev in season one, and she did a couple versions. It was obvious to bring her back for season two. There’s a moment when we were filming the “Wide Net” episode where she’s talking about her niece, Jackie, and how hard it is to be an aunt and kind of like a mom. It’s a really subtle shift in her, and it’s so good. The variety of performance she can give you — she is one of the easiest people to direct, and her performances come across onscreen so well. She’s subtle, but she can be outrageous, and it’s always very grounded.

Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora Danan, joined the writers’ room for season two. How did that come about? 
Part of it came from season one — she developed that character. She’s also a filmmaker and a writer and director, so she thinks like that. The suggestions she’d give about her character were spot on, and it was a no-brainer to bring her in. You half-expect someone to come in and you feel how green they are, but she’s a really talented writer. I imagine she’s going to have a crazy triumphant career.

You mentioned earlier that you’re glad you don’t have the bad habits developed in other writers’ rooms. What does that mean for you? 
I don’t know what all the bad practices are — I’ve never worked in other rooms. But I know that there’s some bad TV, and I can’t imagine those rooms are as creative. You want to lead people creatively and be open to everyone’s strengths, or you can rule with an iron fist. It’s still my voice in the whole thing. I can say, “This doesn’t feel like the show,” and we’ll all think about it and say, “Yeah, it doesn’t.”

Do you remember those episodes you knew weren’t going to work? 
Yeah! One was a Halloween episode. It was called “The Long Game,” and it opens with Willie Jack as a Christian in a fundamentalist Christian church, wearing long skirts and things. The kids are like, “Willie Jack’s been acting different.” They go to a haunted house, but it’s a Christian haunted house with conversion rooms and abortion — really nightmarish stuff. They see Willie Jack participating, and they’re freaked out because they feel like they’ve lost their friend! But then they realize it’s this long game she’s been playing and she’s stealing money from this haunted house to help them get to California. There were so many funny bits, and we were so excited about it, but in the end we realized, This is not the show.

It feels like there’s a much smaller version of that joke in “Decolonativization,” where the kids have to stay for the whole day to get the Sonic gift card. 
Yeah! And we had one episode called “White for a Day,” which is based on this story from when I was young when friends of mine broke into a house and didn’t steal anything. They just ate sandwiches and sat in these people’s kitchen. I thought it was so funny, Indian kids breaking into these white people’s home and just acting white for a day.

So instead, in season two, you have Jackie and Elora eating ranch dressing on everything in this white woman’s home. 
Right! Exactly. Actually, most of that episode I wrote before Reservation Dogs, a script about two women on the run, and a lot of the things that happened in that episode were from that script. It fit really well, and I thought, Ah, shit, I’ll steal from myself. 

Before Reservation Dogs, you were in a sketch-comedy group called the 1491s. The show’s humor has such a confidence to it, and I’m curious how being in that group shaped your comic sensibility for TV. 
They’re all working on the show now! We started because there was a lack of Native humor online, and we were like, Man, there’s funny shit we can be making. Let’s make some stuff for free. I’d also had this experience of making independent films that hobble to the screen with some shitty distribution, so we thought we should put something out ourselves. But I realized it helped me shoot comedy in a way that translated. I slowly learned how you present the world, what lens choice to use, all that stuff.

We learned! We bombed at some live shows, especially in front of non-Natives. What we realized is that white people especially are nervous to laugh when it comes to Indian stuff. They’re either very precious about us or they don’t want to offend us or they don’t get the humor. We realized in a live show that we had to build in permission to laugh, especially if it’s a non-Native audience. So we would come out and talk as ourselves and be very self-deprecating and give them permission. “We tell a lot of dick jokes — feel free to laugh. You’re helping save Indian lives or whatever.” Give them permission to laugh, and then we’d go to the sketches.

I think that’s what the character of Spirit, William Knifeman (1491s member Dallas Goldtooth), does for the show. Here’s something familiar, but now we’re going to flip it on its head and you’ll know what our humor is. I didn’t know how helpful it was until Reservation Dogs. And we got to meet all of Indian Country and played reservations from all over. It helped us pull bits and pieces of things we’d seen on the road. It showed us — it showed me — how to package this humor in a way that everyone can enjoy.

I want to ask you about the finale. First, Brandon Boyd from the band Incubus plays White Jesus. How did that happen? 
He just auditioned for it!

I didn’t know he was out doing auditions! 
I guess! I had this audition from him, and it was great. Maybe it was offer only? I can’t remember … but I had to have seen something from him. Hmmm. I was going for Tom Waits — ha — but he stepped in, and it was great. And then Tim Cappello playing sax was just a thought in the writers’ room, like, “What if we really got him?” And he was available!

How did you land on the idea of them finally making it to California as the concept for the finale?
Always with the finale, you’re rewriting it right up until the end because so many of the other episodes inform it. But I knew I didn’t want to have this California-Daniel thing be an idea they just kept moving toward. It’d be cheap to keep doing that. It was expected but unexpected. It was a good way to end their journey and a good way to open up a new chapter.

The more we went through the season, the simpler it got. For a while it was like, They’re in L.A.! Fish out of water! They’re in Venice! Then it became, Let’s get them to the ocean. It should be about performance and about them talking to Daniel. I think it was amazing, what they did. It was really hard shooting in the water like that, but they pulled it off. I was running around soaking wet, and at one point I was directing and was behind the cameras and the tide was down and all of a sudden it just lifted me off the ground. It was wild.

Next season, whatever they’re dealing with will change into something else. Daniel will always be there, but it’s been a year. The hard part of the mourning feels like it’s coming to a place where they’ve moved through it.

I know you can’t say much about season three because you’ve just started writing it. 
Because I don’t know anything about it yet!

But it sounds like you’ve spent time thinking about what really works for the show. You probably have some ideas about things you’d like to bring back for a third season. 
Big and Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox) together are pretty fantastic. You could almost have a spinoff show of those two. Just knowing that the audience will go with us places — they followed us to the forest and having sex with catfish carcasses. With episode 209, they had a lot of patience for the stillness of that episode. People are invested, which gives us some leeway. I want to bring the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn) back. I want that supernatural stuff to remain in the show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sterlin Harjo Is Not Afraid to Sacrifice a Good Idea